Missouri and Ozarks History

Information and comments about historical people and events of Missouri, the Ozarks region, and surrounding area.

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I'm a freelance writer specializing in the history of the Ozarks and surrounding region. I've written sixteen nonfiction books, two historical novels, and numerous articles. My latest books are Wicked Women of Missouri, Yanked Into Eternity: Lynchings and Hangings in Missouri, and Show-Me Atrocities: Infamous Incidents in Missouri History.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Destruction of the Hannibal Smelting Works

I mentioned last time that at least one regional newspaper said the reason Daniel Reed was lynched in early October 1874 in Joplin was not because he stole a span of mules, as he was accused of doing, but because those responsible for the destruction of the Hannibal Smelting Works in Joplin a couple of months earlier were afraid he was going to tell what he knew about the crime. I promised to give a brief account of the destruction of the smelting works; so here goes.
Oliver S. Picher of Carthage was one of the first men to get rich from Joplin's lead-mining boom after the mineral was first discovered in the area in late 1870. Picher owned a farm in the mining district, and not long after the initial discovery of lead just east and slightly north of downtown Joplin, rich deposits were also discovered on Picher's land, located southeast of the downtown area.
By 1874, several mines were being worked on the land, known as the Picher Field, and it was one of the most productive lead fields in the region. Later, the most important mining operations on Picher's land were centered in the Parr Hill area, about a mile and a half from downtown Joplin, but in 1874, one of the main, if not the main, smelting operation in the Picher Field was the Hannibal Smelting Works, located nearer downtown Joplin.
Picher did not work the mines himself, nor did he directly oversee the operations on his land. Instead, like a number of other land owners, he leased out his land to miners for a share of their ore, and he hired a superintendent to oversee things for him.
In the summer of 1874, a dispute arose between the miners on the one hand and Picher and his superintendent on the other hand over the twenty percent royalty the miners had to pay Picher for the ore they mined. Apparently 20% was higher than the going rate. At least, the miners thought it was too much, and the labor dispute escalated to the point that it came to be known as the "black-jack war." Angry at the miners, Picher finally filed for an injunction to suspend all mining operations on his land.
But the miners did not take the rebuke well. In the wee hours of the morning of July 20, a party of about 25 to 50 masked men made their appearance at the Hannibal Smelting Works and ordered the few men who were working there to gather up their things and prepare to vacate the place. Some of the mob escorted the workers a safe distance away while the others went to work placing kegs of gunpowder under the building and the furnaces and then dousing everything with kerosene. "In a few moments," said the Joplin Mining News, "the furnaces were blown to atoms and the frame structure was a mass of flames."
The band of masked men waited until the fire had made good headway before slipping away into the night. The alarm was then given, and the fire department as well as scores of citizens hurried to the scene. The fire had gotten such a head-start, though, that nothing could be done to save the smelting works from utter destruction.
On the night of the 20th, less than 24 hours after the blowing up of the Hannibal works, a meeting of miners and smelters was held in Joplin to decide whether or not all mining operations should be temporarily shut down until things cooled off. A spokesman for the miners assured those present that no other smelting operations were in danger with the possible exception of the Kansas City smelter. (This was probably a reference to the smelting operation owned by John H. Taylor and other Kansas City area capitalists located in Joplin Creek valley, known as the Kansas City Bottoms.)
A Joplin correspondent to the Fort Scott Daily Monitor observed that some residents of Joplin thought Picher had been oppressing the miners and that their vengeful action was justified. Most people, though, the correspondent continued, felt the action was altogether uncalled for and "a disgrace to our community."
The editor of the Mining News was even more indignant in his condemnation of the destruction of the Hannibal Smelting Works. Calling the action a "gross wrong committed upon a fellow man," the local newspaperman pleaded, "Let differences between miners and companies be settled by law, by compromise, or by any other means than the willful destruction of property." Almost ten years after the fact, the author of the 1883 History of Jasper County recalled the blowing up of the smelting works by the miners as an example of communism at work. References: Fort Scott Daily Monitor, Oswego (KS) Independent, History of Jasper County.

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